Vanishing Referendums

A man comes to a lawyers:
— Tell me, do I have the right…
— Of course you do!
— But you didn’t even listen. Do I have the right…
— I’ve told you, you do.
— Please, let me finish! Do I have the right…
— How many times should I tell you?! You do!!!
— Well, great! So I can…
— Uh, no. Of course you can’t.
Soviet joke
Today, when we hear “referendum” we think of Brexit. But until the black swan of Britain leaving the EU blocked our view, “referendum” usually meant Switzerland. I don’t have any statistical data at hand, but it’s a safe bet to say that most people think that Switzerland is the only country in the world with legal provisions for regular referendums.
Those who’s been reading this blog know that there are two more countries where people have a right to vote in referendums on a wide variety of issues: Liechtenstein and Taiwan. Is this it?
By no means. It’s just a tiny fraction of the actual number. If we look at the number of countries that have legal provisions for binding referendums on national level, we may think that most countries in the world are direct democracies.
27 out of 44 European countries — 61%, a solid majority — have legal provisions for binding national referendum.
In Americas the share of such countries is a bit smaller but also more than half — 21 out of 39 (54%).
In Africa it’s 36 out of 52–69%.
In Oceania it’s 11 out of 15 — whooping 73%.
The only world region where the countries with legal provisions for national binding referendum are in minority is Asia. But even there this minority is quite strong — 18 out of 47 or 38%.
In total, 113 countries of the world (or 57%) have legal provisions for binding referendums. A huge number, isn’t it? It seems that we should read about referendums in different parts of the world almost daily. But we don’t. Why is it?
Because legal provisions aren’t always designed to be acted upon.
Democracy is a Greek word meaning power of people. Democratic governments are usually aware of the fact that when the people don’t have a final say on important questions, at least in theory, the system doesn’t look exactly democratic. That’s why the right of the people to exercise their will directly is enshrined in most constitutions as a symbol of truly democratic nature of the state.
But politicians usually regard public as unenlightened whimsical mass driven by primary instinct and they’re not inclined to let it make decisions in matters of national importance.
In most countries elements of direct democracy in national legislation are often barricaded with several lines of defense:
There are 3 major types of mandatory referendums:
  • Plebiscite
  • Citizens’ Initiative
  • People’s Veto
In different countries they may have different names, which sometimes leads to confusion. Let’s see what they are.
Plebiscite is a referendum initiated by authorities, i.e. state government or parliament, to confirm or reject a piece of legislation when authorities see it as too controversial and want to give it more legitimacy by demonstrating that it is supported by majority of voters. Or if they want to effectively close public discussion of a controversial topic by demonstrating that majority doesn’t support it.
Citizens’ Initiative is a referendum initiated by a group of people proposing a new law or a constitutional amendment.
People’s Veto is, conversely, a referendum initiated by a group of people to invalidate a legislation recently approved by parliament.
Actually, there’s a fourth type of referendum, Statute Affirmation — a referendum initiated by a group of people to protect an existing legislation from amendments — when a statue is approved by such referendum it can be amended by another referendum only but not by parliament. This type of referendum exists only in the US state of Nevada and nowhere else.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Direct or Pure democracy as democracy in which the power is exercised directly by the people rather than through representatives. Therefore, the first type of referendum, plebiscite, is not a direct democracy, as in plebiscite people are supposed to rubber-stamp decisions made by representatives. That’s how it works for instance in Ireland or the UK — though the latter demonstrates us that politicians may badly miscalculate.
The most striking example of a pseudo direct-democracy is Estonia. There, the parliament may submit a bill or an issue for a referendum. But if the submitted bill isn’t approved by the majority of voters, the President of Estonia must dissolve the parliament and declare new elections.
As you may imagine, Estonian Parliament is not very eager to initiate referendums. The only referendum in Estonia after approval of the current constitution, was hold in 2003, on joining the European Union.
If we leave in our list only the countries permitting people to initiate referendums themselves: those that have provisions for Citizens’s Initiative and/or People’s Veto, our list of 113 direct democratic countries shrinks to just 35.
Here they are:
Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Colombia, Croatia, Georgia, Guatemala, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Moldova, Palau, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Ukraine, Taiwan, Uruguay.
Even when a country’s legislation permits Citizen’s Initiatives and/or People’s Veto it doesn’t mean that the people may exercise state authority directly. There are many countries that permit citizens’ initiatives, but only when they don’t concern taxes, budget or constitution — i.e. the most important policy areas. When people are not allowed to vote on fundamental issues, they do not really exercise political power. Countries that don’t permit their citizens to vote on taxes or constitutional amendments only imitate direct democracy. If we exclude them from out list, we’re left with only 4 countries:
Croatia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania and Switzerland
Even if people can initiate referendums themselves and national legislation doesn’t restrict the topics of such referendums, direct democracy can be efficiently prevented by excessively prohibitive entry barriers such as unrealistic requirements on the number of signatures. It is the case in Croatia where in order to call a referendum an initiative group needs to collect signature of 10% of eligible voters in just 15 days.
Compare it with Switzerland, where one has to collect signatures of about 1% of registered voters in 100 days for People’s Veto and signatures of about 2% of registered voters in 18 months for Citizens’ Initiative.
It’s hard to believe, but once it actually happened: in 2013 when conservative and religious groups with the help of all Croatian churches collected more than 700000 signatures for a referendum on the definition of marriage as a union between man and woman (and won it afterwards). Every other citizens’ attempt to collect enough signatures for a referendum failed.
Which leaves as with Liechtenstein, Lithuania and Switzerland.
Alternatively, one may sabotage people’s will is to introduce unreasonable demands on the number of votes necessary to win a referendum. That until recently was (and partly still is) the case in Lithuania. Until 2002 a referendum could be won only when more than half of registered voters (not half of people participating in the referendum) voted for a proposal. In 2002 the law was amended. Now it requires “only” more than third or registered voters to support a proposal (still wouldn’t be enough even if turnout were 55% and 60% of participants voted for). Also, it still has 50% participation requirement and to amend Chapters 1 through 14 of the Lithuanian Constitution one still has to get votes of more than 50% of all registered votes.
In May 2019 Lithuanians voted on two proposals: reducing the number of members of the Lithuanian Parliament and allowing dual citizenship with certain friendly democratic countries (mostly NATO and EU members).
Voters overwhelmingly supported both proposals — 76.19% and 73.92% respectively. But both results were rendered invalid. The first because the turnout was 47.45% instead of necessary 50%. The second — because citizenship rules are regulated by Article 12 of the Lithuanian Constitution and therefore to change it one need support of 50% of all registered voters, and support of 73.92% of the participants of the referendum with the turnout of 52.78% means that only 38.46% of all registered Lithuanian voters voted for the proposal.
10 referendums were held since the approval of the Lithuanian Constitution — and in 8 of the 10 most of participants supported the proposal with overwhelming majority ranging for 65% to 83.63%. But only 1 result in those 8 has met all the necessary requirements to be officially recognized: the referendum on joining the European Union in 2003.

And that leaves us with the countries we started with Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
But what about Taiwan? Unfortunately, notwithstanding great progress in that direction, in Taiwan people still can’t vote on budget and taxes — and hence they don’t have a say in the two most important questions: how much the state charges them for its services and how it spends their money — something that citizens of Liechtenstein and Switzerland do quite regularly.


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